03/09/2012 01:05 pm ET Updated May 09, 2012

Kick-the-Can America

As a nation, we are often quite good at setting goals -- but in reality we are missing them now more often than we meet them. It wasn't always this way.

We once had presidents like Eisenhower and Kennedy who set goals for the country such as developing a national highway infrastructure and landing a man on the moon -- and we met those goals. President Lyndon Johnson ramped up investments in DARPA -- the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency -- that led to today's Internet. These goals, of course, were very tangible: they produced "things" or events that you could see and touch. Your car travels on a road; astronauts brought back rocks from the moon; and today we surf the web to find all sorts of information.

Our more recent efforts at setting national goals, by contrast, have been far different and much less tangible. Moreover, they have been in areas where the means for achieving the aspirations have not always been clear. Take, for example, the National Education Goals launched by President George H.W. Bush after his 1989 Charlottesville Education Summit with all but one of the nation's governors. There were initially six education goals, announced in 1990, and then expanded to eight goals by President Bill Clinton. One goal pledged that by the year 2000, the United States would be first in the world in math and science. Another goal said that by the year 2000, all of our children would arrive at school ready to learn.

What happened? After much bravado, data-gathering, and speech-making, we failed to meet any of the goals. A 2010 study by the Paris-based OECD's Project on International Student Assessment reported that the U.S. ranked 31st in the world in math performance and 23rd in science. We were 17th in reading. As for our investments in early childhood education, we remain, embarrassingly, near the bottom of OECD countries in terms of the size of our investment and in terms of the unacceptable rates of infant mortality and childhood obesity.

Then along comes President George W. Bush who proposes that we reform our K-12 education system through his 2002 "No Child Left Behind" law which required that all American youngsters reach "proficiency" in reading and math by 2014. Failure to meet the "adequate yearly progress" standards would be met by significant financial penalties to states and schools. We have less than two years to reach the NCLB goal. It won't happen.

The Congress cannot agree on how to reauthorize the "No Child Left Behind" law, so Education Secretary Arne Duncan, in the meantime, has authorized waivers from NCLB's requirements for the states that have requested forbearance. To no one's surprise, several states have sought and received waivers. The Obama administration has also proposed a new goal, since we will obviously fail to meet the last one. The new goal is that by 2020, all children will be "college ready." There's nothing inherently wrong with such a goal -- it's just that we've been there, done that -- like Charlie Brown, Lucy, and the football. Presidents excel at setting goals, especially when the due dates are well into their retirement.

"College ready" by 2020 is another platitude. Real action would mean adopting now a high stakes national test for high school graduates like the French baccalaureate exam. Students who passed it would be "college ready." Those who didn't would have to work harder to pass it again or pursue a different route.

Similar goals have now been announced by the Obama administration and several major foundations when it comes to increasing the number of young Americans with postsecondary education experience. For example, the Obama administration wants the U.S. to regain its top ranking when it comes to the number of citizens with post-secondary education degrees by increasing the college attainment rate from 40% to 60% by 2020. Again, these are important goals, but what is the country doing now to reach them?

We also have proposed goals for balancing the budget, reducing our fiscal deficit, and curbing health care spending. President Obama promised that he would cut the U.S. budget deficit in half by the end of his first term. His fiscal 2013 proposed budget concedes that he has missed this promise. President Obama has also pledged that 80 percent of Americans will have access to high speed rail within 25 years. Would you be willing to bet that we'll reach this goal -- when President Obama will be in his mid-seventies?

Meanwhile, take a look at what is happening today in some other countries.

Brazil has managed to increase dramatically its educational achievement among its young people in just ten years.

Shortly after we mothballed our space shuttle, China announced an ambitious space program intended to place a man on the moon.

The 2012 presidential election should be about the actions required today to meet America's needs in education, health care, infrastructure, energy policy, fiscal policy (including major, structural entitlement and tax reform), and campaign finance reform. Solutions for each one of these important issues already exist. There may be partisan or ideological disagreements as to how to proceed, but our elected leaders in the past have compromised to find solutions to big issues. There is no reason why they cannot do so now.

For most of these issues, we need to adopt an "investment" mentality -- one where we will have to change our behavior now in order to ensure a different outcome in the future. Our "kick the can" mentality is what prevents us from actually tackling these problems because we conclude that "now" doesn't mean today but rather some point in the future when someone else will be in charge. Just take a look at Greece where "kick the can" is suddenly no longer an option. They have run out of "tomorrows." In fact, they've run out of cans.


Charles Kolb is the President of the Committee for Economic Development in Washington, D.C. He served in the first Bush White House from 1990-1992 as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy and in the Department of Education as Deputy Undersecretary for Planning, Budget and Evaluation (1988-1990). The views in this article are solely the author's.